Some words are predictable—”arrogant,” “intimidating,” “mean,” “stoic,” “blunt,” “sarcastic.”

Predictable, that is, as descriptions of me.

I anticipate them, and I recognize they are inaccurate in some (most?) ways. They also hurt, sting at the very core of who I am, who I try to be.

Especially as a teacher.

Recently, a new label popped up—”passive aggressive.”

I didn’t expect that because “passive aggressive” doesn’t square with “blunt,” which I most certainly am. The context was also frustrating since it involved me frantically communicating (mostly on my phone email App) with a student who had put themselves in a precarious situation, about to fail a course by not meeting minimum requirements.

Since expectations for my course are explicit on my course materials, and since I routinely email students reminding students of those expectations (as well as express them aloud in class several times throughout a semester), I had every right to let the situation play out in a way that would not have served the student well.

In my efforts to find some avenue for this student to pass the course, however, my email communications were characterized as “passive aggressive,” and the conversation turned to the ways in which I was responsible for the situation.

This event sits in the context of recent course SETs showing a pattern of students finding my feedback “mean” and “blunt” (one comment noted I am supportive and patient in conferences, but not in written feedback).

While none of this is really new (except the “passive aggressive” charge), I suspect some of the student perceptions are exaggerated by the tensions created in our Covid-19 context; I certainly feel far more stress, and have trouble with patience because of the pervasive stress of the pandemic and how that has changed dramatically the teaching/learning conditions of my courses.

Since I do not grade assignments and I require as well as allow students to revise major works as often as they choose, my courses are extremely gracious and low-stakes when compared to traditional courses.

Yes, my non-graded approach does cause some paradoxical stress for students accustomed to grades and tests, but ultimately, the criticisms offered by students have a clear source—me, as a person, or more specifically my text-based persona in written feedback and emails.

Having taught for 37 years, and having spent about half that career working with 100-125 students at a time, I have honed an incredibly important skill to facilitate my primary work as a teacher of writing—efficiency.

As a high school English teacher, I experimented for several years with how to give feedback on thousands of student essays so that I could return those drafts quickly and not spend hours and hours responding. Eventually I created a numbering system that allowed me to mark and highlight on student drafts, assigning numbers that students then used to refer to a text I wrote that guided their revision (see here).

That system helped me be efficient (students received essays back the same or next day after submitting), but it also supported my efforts to foster students as independent writers (not simply “correcting” the “errors” I marked).

Quick and efficient responses to my students are behaviors I pride myself on. I tend to respond to student emails immediately, often on my phone.

People who know me also know my emails are exceedingly brief. I return student essays as Word attachments, and the text of the email tends to be only “attached.”

I return my university students’ essays the same day, often within a couple hours of their being due. Brevity in emailing allows me to work quickly.

Brevity, however, isn’t always the best form of communication.

Usually when a course has just begun, a student or two will respond to my “attached” email by noting they had attached their submission, failing to see I was returning their draft with my comments (some of that confusion is that they usually wait days for essays to be returned in other courses).

I have abandoned my numbering system since I handle a much lower paper load teaching at the university level. I still respond with very terse comments and use a great deal of highlighting, guiding students to ample support material to support their revisions.

At the beginning of a course, I do warn students not to interpret my comments on their writing or my emails as negative, angry, or sarcastic. I also stress that any questions I ask are genuine questions; their answers inform how I continue to help them.

Notably, since I provide a great deal of support material (such as sample essays with notes provided in the margins), I often ask students if they used the support materials and samples when submitting their draft. It is quite a different thing if they have (and the materials didn’t help) or if they simply chose not to.

At 60, I certainly can be brief to the point of blunt. Less patient? Probably.

I am often perceived as stoic (caveat: I am an introvert), and as a result, viewed as intimidating (although that charge really does hurt my feelings).

And then the Universe steps in: How to decipher a curt or passive-aggressive email by Erica Dhawan.

Dhawan examines specifically emails that are brief and confronts the problem of intent versus perception, but also the importance of the imbalance of power in communications that are brief:

Brevity from the upper echelons of power isn’t exactly uncommon. At Morgan Stanley, there was a running joke that the more senior you were, the fewer characters you needed to express your gratitude in a text or email. You started your career with Thank you so much! and after a promotion or two, this was cut down to Thanks. Another promotion produced Thx or even TX. One senior leader just wrote T.

How to decipher a curt or passive-aggressive email

What is important for my situation (and I do recommend reading the entire article, which is itself brief) is that brevity is often perceived as inadequate feedback and passive aggressive.

Regardless of my intentions or my warnings to students, their psychological and emotional responses to my written feedback and emails over-ride the significant feedback I do provide as well as the person they encounter when we talk face-to-face (in reality or on Zoom).

As an old dog, I am faced with having to learn new tricks because the consequences of these dynamics do negatively impact the teaching/learning environment of my classes.

At the core of this tension is, again, the power imbalance; despite my best efforts to foster a relationship with students that is collaborative and cooperative, students have mostly had somewhat antagonistic relationships with teachers, notably in the context of submitting writing to be evaluated.

Dhawan concludes: “If you have a high level of trust, opt for the phone call, and don’t hesitate to respond quickly and informally. If you have less trust or a higher gap in power levels, be specific and polite in your responses and use formal channels.” This is in the context of business relationships, but as an educator, I recognize the same problem because at the university level I have less time to foster trust and cannot ignore the “gap in power levels” between professors and students.

“Brevity is the soul of wit” is an often misunderstood line from Shakespeare (folk quote it as a pearl of wisdom although Shakespeare is using it to parody Polonius, a blowhard who is never brief and often wrong).

It turns out, in the digital era, brevity is the source of miscommunication.

[Insert face palm emoji here]